Photographer Jordan Sullivan Takes Us on a Meditative Journey into Death Valley

Artsy Editorial
Mar 17, 2015 9:18PM

The psychedelic desert photographs of Jordan Sullivan capture not only the look but also the feeling of the Mojave Desert’s Death Valley. Sullivan makes unusual choices in his compositions, focusing only on color or washing it out, and printing landscapes in vertical formats using horizon lines as dividers for color more than space. His adventurous uses of the medium play to its strengths, exploring light and opening up new dialogues within experimental photography.

Sullivan’s work upends (or dismisses) several traditional notions of photographic norms. The photographer emphasizes a concern for naturalism in his representational works, which often feature landscapes, but he also focuses on the light that fills Death Valley. The latter works resemble color-field abstractions in gradations of pale and candy-like colors, which Sullivan achieves through importing many tactics from painting in order to contort his images into meditative studies of the sublime.

Among his most unconventional moves is Sullivan’s abandonment of compositional strictures. Whereas landscapes are most often depicted in a horizontal format, most of Sullivan’s are vertically oriented. In Landscape 3, Mountain #6, and Mountain #12, the artist shoots mountains deep into the distance, but from a narrowed, tunnel-vision-like perspective. He prints in large formats, up to 60 x 40 inches, so despite their verticality, the towering images envelop the viewer. The aforementioned works employ a limited palette of neutral colors, from blue-gray to warm taupe, and in the former two, the landscapes seem on the verge of dissolving.

Sullivan does sometimes hew to more standard formats, as in Landscape 1 and Landscape 2. These pieces offer an expansive perspective of a valley, the horizon line barely visible in the distance. Still, despite these distancing maneuvers, the work seems deeply ingrained in the artist’s worldview, and intends to absorb viewers. “Through photography I hope to get closer to the world, not escape from it,” says Sullivan. “The desert has always been a place that I’ve been drawn to, particularly for its contradictions. Like any wilderness, the desert is a place where you can find peace but also somewhere violent and hostile.”

Much of Sullivan’s recent work has been shot in Death Valley, in Eastern California. His “Death Valley Light” series, filled with hazy swaths of color, captures the desert’s light reflected on clouds. In Death Valley Light 2, a fuzzy peach-color takes up most the field of vision, tempered by a thin slice of pale blue at the top. Works like Death Valley Light 6 go through a more elaborate progression of colors, in this case powdery blue to a subtle pinkish-purple to washed-out orange. In many works, the color is extremely intense reflecting the time of day in which they were taken; in others, such as Death Valley Light 8 and Death Valley Light 10, the hues are more muddled, suggesting dusk.

Sullivan’s psychedelic inversion of convention parallels the mythical aura of the west and the hallucinatory power of deserts. His work disturbs expectations with their unusual beauty, portraying as much the feeling of the nature as its appearance.

Stephen Dillon

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Artsy Editorial